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Measles warning as vaccination rates fall

Up to one in seven five-year-olds may not be up to date with MMR

Mark Gould

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Public Health England (PHE) is warning that one in seven five-year-olds may not be fully up-to-date with some routine immunisations including Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR), with the figure rising to around one in four children in London.

PHE says that these "worrying estimates", released as part of its Value of Vaccines campaign, show that some four and five-year-olds are starting school at unnecessary risk of serious diseases compared to the majority of their classmates, prompting a call for parents to check their child’s Red Book to ensure their children are up-to-date with scheduled immunisations.

Around 680,000 five-year-olds start school in England each year according to Department for Education figures. Based on percentage uptake from the latest vaccination coverage figures* PHE estimates that:

  • Over 30,000 (around one in 19) five-year-olds may still need to receive their first dose of MMR, leaving them significantly more at risk compared to pupils who are fully vaccinated
  • Around 90,000 (or one in seven) five-year-olds in England may still need to receive their second dose of MMR vaccine. Almost 30,000 of these children are in London, meaning that around one in four primary school starters in the capital don’t have the full protection that the MMR vaccine offers
  • Around 100,000 (or one in eight) five-year-olds in England may still need their four-in-one pre-school booster that protects against diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus and polio.

PHE says that this means that more than 5% of five-year-olds are starting reception year having not received any MMR. This leaves them at high risk of measles at a time when outbreaks of the disease are occurring across the country.

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at PHE, said: "It’s a real concern that so many young children – as many as a quarter of a reception class in some areas – could be starting school without the full protection that the NHS childhood immunisation programme offers for free.

"We know that parents want the best protection for their children and so many may be unaware that their child is not up-to-date. We’re urging all parents of primary school starters to check their child’s Red Book now to make sure there is a record of two MMR doses and the four-in-one booster vaccine. If not, parents should contact their GP practice to arrange any further vaccinations that are needed.

"We’re particularly concerned about children being at greater risk of measles. We’re continuing to see outbreaks of the disease occurring in communities across the country, many linked to visiting European countries over the summer holidays.

"The vast majority of those affected are not fully immunised and vaccine preventable diseases spread more easily in schools. It’s crucial that children have maximum protection as they begin to mix with other children at the start of their school journey."

British Medical Association (BMA) board of science chair Professor Dame Parveen Kumar said: “Doctors are very concerned that the number of young children who are up-to-date with vaccinations seems to be falling. Measles can be a very serious illness and whilst diphtheria and whooping cough are thankfully relatively rare, they remain a risk to children who are not vaccinated.

“The BMA has always maintained that the government and NHS England must take practical steps to make people far more aware of their local immunisation services and ensure they have proper access to them. However, health leaders have been slow to act – proven by these figures from Public Health England.

“The prime minister’s announcement on measures to improve vaccination rates is long overdue and though welcome, more must be done.

“Frontline medical staff must be given the resources to provide a successful and comprehensive vaccination programme - to protect children in all parts of the population. In addition, support must be readily available to help parents and carers better understand the importance of vaccinating their children and make an informed decision."

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